Thursday 17 May 2012

Down With Housework!

Doing The Mending: Each chapter heading in How To Run Your  Home Without Help
is illustrated with a lovely little line drawing
Housework, as those who know me will confirm, has never been one of my accomplishments, and the Man Of The House is equally unenthusiastic about domestic activities. ‘Lived-in’ is how people describe our home. Or even ‘very lived-in’, uttered somewhat disparagingly as they shift books off the sofa, brush cat hairs off their clothes and stare in horror at the state of our coffee mugs.

When our daughters were younger their schoolfriends used to turn up at our house to practice their art homework, or colour their hair (does anyone know how to remove blue dye stains from the wash basin?), then depart telling us how much they liked our ‘cosy’ home – which was, I think, a polite way of saying we were messy, and that their mothers would never dream of letting them do such things in their own homes.

A trip down Memory Lane: This book brought
back memories of my childhood, and how hr
my mother worked to keep the house clean
Post-redundancy, you might expect me to have turned over a new leaf because I now have time for the household chores but, if anything, the situation is even worse than it was, as I have discovered all kinds of things that are far more interesting and enjoyable than cleaning, polishing, ironing and washing up.

So, you may wonder why I have a kind of theme going on with my current Books In Progress pile, and the theme is... HOUSEWORK! It started quite simply when I spotted a Persephone edition of How To Run Your Home Without Help, by Kay Smallshaw. There it was, among a stack of volumes donated to the Oxfam Bookshop, packed with useful information that must have been invaluable for middle-class housewives when it was first written in 1949, and I just couldn’t resist it, because I’m always convinced that this type of book will help me transform my home into a neat, tidy, well-ordered haven of perfection – and it is such to fun to read.

Then, by coincidence, I came across a review of House-Bound, by Winifred Peck, so I ordered a copy through Abebooks, because it sounded interesting and I deserved a treat, and whilst doing that I discovered The Home-Maker, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, so I ordered that too (I was treating myself, remember). And the next time I was helping in the Oxfam Bookshop I came across a copy of Katie Fforde’s The Rose Revived, with a painted picture of a proper woman on the front, instead of one of those brainless, pastel-coloured, girly graphics that currently grace the covers of her work. So I pounced on it – after all, £1.99 is such a bargain, and Katie Fforde is always a good read, and it’s worth it for the cover alone.

The endpapers are taken from  'Riverside',
a 1946 printed dress fabric in rayon crepe,
and I bet it looked fabulous made up
So, reading them in the order I acquired them, first up is How To Run Your Home Without Help, written in the aftermath of the Second World War. The army of women who had been working as maids, cooks and children’s nannies spent the war years doing other things: some joined up, or became Land Girls, while others worked in munitions factories, or took on jobs left vacant while men were fighting. When the conflict was over few of those who had been ‘in service’ were prepared to return. Life had changed, and well-heeled, middle-class women were left to run their homes on their own, when rationing was still in existence, and shortages of food and all kinds of other goods were still widespread. It must have come as a terrible shock them, and there’s an excellent preface by Christina Hardyment which puts the book in its historic context.

Smallshaw covers just about everything anyone could possibly want to know about keeping house – planning, cleaning, spring-cleaning, equipment, food, shopping, washing, mending, doing the accounts, and what to do when Baby comes. There’s even a chapter on A Man About The House, and another on Beauty While You Work (a simple tin of Vaseline is a ‘hand-saver’ and rubber gloves are useful, she says). And she advises always using ‘a scarf, cap or clean duster pinned like a nurse’s square over the head and hair when doing the rooms’, as well as remembering to brush your hair each night. In addition, you can get a ‘beauty bath’ by going out in the rain with no cosmetics on, and on wash-day you should cleanse your skin and apply nourishing cream before you begin, then the steam will soften it. And, apparently, housework is good for the figure, although I can’t say it’s done anything for mine – perhaps the 1949 housewife didn’t keep stopping for snacks.

The problem with buying second-hand
Persephone is that the bookmarks are
missing, but I found this postcard which
seemed suitable
I adore the chapter on Doing The Washing, which mentions a ‘hand-operated simple washing machine’ which is an ‘elaboration of a wash-boiler’. Oddly enough, my mother had an antiquated version of something like this when I was a child. There was a rubber hose, which ran from the tap into the machine, and the gas underneath had to be lit to boil the water. I seem to remember there was a plastic paddle inside, which agitated the washing, and everything had to be dragged into the sink with enormous wooden tongs so it could be rinsed, then pushed through the mangle which was attached to the washer. When my brother was born we had a home-help, who couldn’t get to grips with this machine at all, and flooded the kitchen...

There are tips on starching, blueing and stiffening (does anyone else remember those?) as well as hints about taking the drudgery out of ironing – although personally I doubt such a thing is possible.

And the section on mending is an absolute joy. Who these days would bother to darn clothes or ‘make over’ bed linen (in the days before fitted sheets and duvet covers, cotton or linen sheets were cut up the middle, then stitched back together, with the worn patches turned to the outsides).

Ready For Action: Chapter III is all about using the right equipment
Other long-vanished household tasks include things like cleaning the front steps – again, it conjured up memories of my childhood, when my mother, along with most of the other women in our street, would buff up the step with red lead polish. I suspect that Mum, and all the other women she knew, never read this book, but just used their common sense, doing things the way their mothers had done but, as advised by Smallshaw, Mum always recycled old clothes, towels, tea towels and sheets to make cloths for cleaning, dusting and polishing (no J-cloths in those days). And, as there were no spray cans, the cupboard under the sink boasted an impressive array of cleaning lotions and solid wax polishes, just as the book recommends.

I loved this book, largely I suspect, because it was a real trip down Memory Lane, reminding me of my own childhood in the 1950s. To anyone younger than me it would probably seem very old-fashioned, but there is a surprising amount of sound advice that could still be followed and adapted to suit modern lifestyles. But it did confirm my view that progress is a wonderful thing when it comes to housework!
Spring Cleaning: Does anyone still do this?


  1. I too hate housework though I love the after effects -- when I finally do get around to tidying and cleaning, generally when I'm expecting visitors, I always decide that in future I'll keep the place looking that way, but I never do. There's always so much more to do that's so much more enjoyable. This sounds like a really fun book, but it might make me feel guilty, I'm afraid.

    1. Woo hoo, a kindred spirit! Harriet, this book was fun, and it didn't make me feel guilty at all - but it did make me feel kind of nostalgic, because it made me remember my childhood, when my mother (who, at 85 is still a better housewife than I am) used to do all the kinds of things that are mentioned. But even she no longer darns or starches or polishes the step - she reads, and gardens and paints beautiful watercolour flowers!

  2. I'm afraid I hate thinking or reading about housework. My friend and I call our houses full of "normal dirt" which means the walls and windows need to be washed,etc.

    1. Judaye, I don't mind thinking or reading about housework - just as long as I don't have to do any!The book is interesting as a historical work - it's a kind of social/women's history, and as such is quite fascinating.